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Myths of Decolonization – Rise up or die

Myths of Decolonization – Rise up or die

‘The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape.’ wrote Sachs et al. in 1993 (Sachs, 2019), and this is as true now as it was then. Sachs continues by reminding us how back then, all seventeen of the authors of the Development Dictionary understood that the idea of ‘development’ was paving the way for the ‘Western imperial power over the (post-war) world’ – sadly, they were right. And they felt that the ‘development’ as it was conceptualized ‘led into a cul-de-sac, the consequences of which would hit us in the form of injustice, cultural turmoil, and ecological decline.’ (ibid.) All of the predictions we have witnessed in the years that followed the publication of their development classic. Today, just like Sachs and his colleagues back in 1993 when they set out to expose the idea of development, we seem to be faced with a similar challenge of exposing the myths of decolonization, the latest brainchild of the ‘development’ enthusiasts.

Building on the previous posts, now I will elaborate on why the attempt to ‘decolonize development’ will suffer the fate of ‘international development,’ especially in the digital sphere, unless a systemic disruption undergirds the process. However idealistic one may be, the paradox inherent in the ‘decolonization’ theory remains, regardless of the (media) space to which one applies it. Therein, however, lies an even greater challenge. In a world where technological advancement, the Internet, and social media platforms, expected to provide the space for equal engagement and digital activism for social change, are still concentrated in the ‘North’ – we are back to square one. How can one hope for different results using the old language and paradigms, with the tools and the power still in the same hands? Following this analogy, only one solution remains to fully decolonize: a total class revolution.

“Once oligarchs seize power, Aristotle wrote, a society must either accept tyranny or choose revolution.”[1] Do we accept tyranny and die, or rise up and choose revolution? A revolution until we transform and dismantle the systemic inequalities of Western neo-liberalism and build an entirely new world. A world where the linguistic and theoretical colonialism of ‘Three (or Two) Worlds’ no longer exists and where the same opportunities are found in former colonies and former colonial centres. Until the ‘First World’ writes off the ‘debt’ and pays the reparations to former colonies, and recognizes as equally prestigious a degree from a university in Kabul or Bangui as one from London or Boston. And when the distribution of wealth and technology is equally in the hands of those who extract the resources as the ones who process and sell them. For this to happen, the capitalist ideology would have to either self-destruct, implode or explode under the pressure of their own and other ‘colonized’ masses.

If decolonization is to occur, that systemic disruption would include eliminating the development aid industry as an extension of colonialism, a new imperial ruler over the world under the cloak of ‘international aid’ (Sachs, 2019). However, since systemic change usually requires a revolution, the question becomes – who will rise against whom, especially if we follow the premise of being both ‘the oppressor and the oppressed.’  Would the costs outweigh the benefits, and is such a revolution even possible, considering the absolute power in the hands of the financial and technological plutocrats and the complexity of the current power relations? Cammaerts (2015) points out the conclusions reached by early research on the Internet and political participation as having ‘failed to produce increased political participation’ (p8). Moreover, he points out that the offline power structures are replicated online, so the ‘state and market control of the networked infrastructures’ remains strong. Despite the emancipatory potential of ICTs, they stay ‘instrumental in strengthening the powers that be’ (ibid.).

“Even when you push back colonization as a physical process (the physical empire), colonialism as a power structure continues because it invades the mental universe of a people, destabilizing them from what they used to know into knowing what is brought in by colonialism, and it then commits “crimes” such as epistemicide (where you kill and displace pre-existing knowledge), linguicide (killing and displacing the languages of a people and imposing your own), culturecide (where you kill or replace the cultures of a people).”

“If you remove colonialism physically without removing it epistemically, it will not disappear.”[2]

Even before ICT started to take over most other aspects of our lives, the development aid industry faced an existential crisis around six decades after its advent. Like other industries, development also had to adapt to the ICT-imposed changes of the Internet era. Thus ICT for development (ICT4D) emerged. More recently, new media started to play an increasingly important role in how development was done and communicated to its stakeholders. While integrating new technologies into the development work could be considered quite a success for most development organizations and agencies and various social change movements worldwide, the fundamental issue plaguing the development industry as a whole – its reason for being – remains unresolved.

Decolonizing development as an industry and academic discipline could start by turning all Western jobs related to ‘development’ voluntary and unpaid. Simultaneously all campaigning and advocacy efforts should focus on wrestling the power away from the plutocrats that hold the entire Western world hostage together with the rest. Instead of online activism in a digital echo chamber controlled by the same powers in new clothes, expensive ‘humanitarian’ conferences, and reports regurgitating the same old tropes for over half a century that have failed to change anything, the funds should be used to remove inequalities, prove education and create work opportunities to every child and adult, across the world.

How would the development industry survive its ‘voluntary’ makeover? How many ‘White saviours’ vying for highly overpaid development jobs would switch to something more lucrative? Would ‘decolonization’ remain as vital to its proponents if most good jobs and prestigious university degrees were taken away from them so that the children in Congo, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere would get food, shelter, primary healthcare, and basic education? How many ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ agencies would continue their work if they would earn the wages of the people they are trying to ‘decolonize’? And how should we go about wrestling the control of finance, education, information, and digitalization from the hands of the super-powerful elites? Who are the ‘we’ that need to start the decolonizing revolution? The ‘we’ from the ‘South’ and we from the ‘North’? Once these questions are asked, one faces the reality of ‘decolonization of development’ being a utopian notion, and such that the only viable solutions remain either a revolution or death in tyranny.